This is another party story, like Turning the Tables.

At this same party, there were so many new people I’d never met, unusual in our smallish town. I would ask people, “What do you do?”

It always feels like a hopelessly inadequate question. After all, a person working as a clerk in an office could also be an artist, a singer, a T’ai Chi master. You never know.

It reminds me of a section in Martha Beck’s latest book, The Joy Diet. In the chapter “Play”, she asks you to name your real career.

A real career is not necessarily what you’ve trained for, or what you do to earn a living, or even the job you’re currently in (or not in).

Your real career, as Webster defines it, is “…the course of action a person takes over a lifetime.”

It may not be what you do for money. It may not be anything you’ve ever done. It may not even be what you do in your free time.

It is, she says, “…the course of action your true self would take if you were to live to the limit of your potential.”

This is a harder concept to grasp–what do you dream of doing? What feeds your soul? What are you at heart?

And this could be, she says, a Japanese scholar, a scientist, a mother.

This reminds me of the older definition of amateur: What you pursue for love. Or perhaps what you would pursue, for love.

To cut to the chase, she often asks her clients, “What were you doing the morning of 9/11? And what did you do that evening?” What seemed most important to you then?

When I found out about the two towers, I was working in my studio. And making preparations for my birthday celebration.

My husband and I immediately went for a walk. And talked.

We observed that there was a new dividing line: The people who knew. And the people who didn’t yet know.

I held my family close, and struggled with what to tell my kids.

I went back to my studio to make little horses. I struggled with why I should still do this.

Then I wrote about it.

And then I went out to celebrate my birthday.

I had to write about the event to make sense of it.

I had to ask myself why why making those horses still had meaning for me.

It was because they were, for me, a symbol of everything that’s tender, and good, in the world.

So I know my real career is making sense of the things that happen to us in life. To write about them as I go through them. To mangle my intentions, to struggle with meaning. To find a little way through.

And then to share them, through stories, with other people.

And then make little horses that embody those stories.

Oh, and to always leave room for cake.

I’m curious.

Pretend we’re at a party, and we meet.

What is your job?

And what is your real career?

PS. Art biz tip: This should be someplace in your artist statement, you know….

PPS. For this exercise, if something spared you the sucker-punch-to-the-stomach reaction to 9/11, feel free to choose another life event that left you reeling.

Author: Luann Udell

I find it just as important to write about my art as to make it. I am fascinated by stories. You can tell when people are speaking their truth--their eyes light up, their voices become strong, their entire body posture becomes powerful and upright. I love it when people get to this place in their work, their relationships, their art. As I work from this powerful place in MY heart, I share this process with others--so they have a strong place to stand, too. Because the world needs our beautiful art. All of it we can make, as fast as we can! Whether it's a bowl, a painting, a song, a garden, a story, if it makes our world a better place, we need to do everything in our power to get it out there.

8 thoughts on “YOUR REAL CAREER”

  1. Great post and thoughts, Luann. A love of creative expression has been the encompassing theme for my entire life. At one time I was unable to express my creative gifts — truly blocked by my fears — but now I live and breathe artmaking every day and my confidence and competence are growing strong through the daily practice and focus. My medium is textiles and it excites and stimulates my imagination anew continually.


  2. My job is a freelance web developer. And my real career is the same one that I wrote down in painstaking block letters at the age of 5, in September of first grade: artist.

    Of course, at 5, I didn’t realize just how BIG artist was but sometimes it’s better that way.

    That note to my future self in first grade, the teacher found a stack of them when she packed to move 5 years ago. She mailed them to those of us who were still in the local phone book. My 26 year old self sat and read it and I do believe I cried. And then I pulled out the somewhat neglected clay – I was dabbling a lot but not DOING much – and pencils and beads and got down to it.


  3. It wasn’t immediately after 9/11, and it wasn’t necessarily triggered by it directly, but a couple years after 9/11 I dropped out of my science career and began calling myself an artist. I had known for years (decades even) that I wanted to create, and my day job was getting more and more stifling. I had to wait for financial reasons, but when the time came I jumped ship and never looked back.

    My real career and my day job are now aligned. I make art. It isn’t always fun and games, but it’s right.


  4. I bring things together.

    In my “job” job, which I do for money, I work in the legal field. I talk to clients, getting the facts and their view of what the facts mean, and then I write their story, to inform and persuade another person to “do the right thing,” whatever that thing may be.

    In my real career, I knit and write. I knit stories of color and texture, where I start in a corner, or the center, or a strip, and I go until the work is complete, then give it away.

    One of my favorites was “Tyger,” diagonal stripes of tawny and black on a field of various greens. Bordered on the bottom and left with blue and yellow, on the top and right with purple and white, it was a tiger slinking through the forest by day and by night, under the sun and moon.

    On September 12, I turned off the television and radio and knit and knit and knit until I could live in the world once more.


  5. 9/11 gave a number of people clarity. I work as an Administrator in a medical research institute. I was in an MBA program studying whenever I wasn’t working. AFter 9/11 I decided if I died the next day I didn’t want my life to be all about studying. I quit school and started my jewelry business. When people ask what I do…I’m a jewelry designer. My day job only allows me to pay the bills.


  6. Jeanne, as I read your “live and breathe” comment, I thought of yoga–breathing your art in and out every single day. Beautiful!

    Elaine, what a lovely story! And what an incredible gift from your teacher. She must have been a very special person to know how much that little “letter from the past” would mean to you all later.


  7. Barbara, I think you picked just the right word: “alignment”. Sounds like 9/11 may not have been the seed, but perhaps the ground for a new calling to grow.

    Spike, thank you for sharing that beautiful image of you knitting until you could live in the world again. You’ve given me a blog idea! Look for “The Seven Swans” soon.


  8. Gail, sounds like you’ve found a balanced solution to supporting yourself, yet making plenty of room to do the work you love. It can be so much easier if we don’t get caught up in the “either/or” and switch to the “if/and” model.


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